The origin of the expression ‘throwing down the gauntlet’ stems from medieval times and is literally a declaration of war. One look at the weapon, that often featured knuckledusters designed to maximize punishment when delivering a punch to an enemy and it’s easy to understand how the gauntlet became a symbolic call to arms.
Early metal plate hand protection began during the late 12th century when the mail sleeves of the hauberk were elongated into a mitten. Worn above a leather glove this style of hand armor protected the fingers with a single protective plate and was norm the for more than a century and a half.
By the end of the 13th century mail gloves with separate fingers started to appear as an extension of the sleeve plates covering the back of the hand from the wrist to the end of the metacarpals. Bordered by the thumb joint and embossed around the finger joints and base of the thumb, the design was completed with overlapping plates that covered the individual fingers and cuff.
Early forms of these gloves were known as hourglass gauntlets because the plate was wide over the back of the hand, narrowing at the wrist and then flaring out again at the cuff. Generally only the thumb was articulated with mechanical plates while the fingers were protected by a solid top plate riveted to mail or leather gloves. This type of armor remained in vogue until the fifteenth century when the cuff narrowed to protect against the threat of a sword penetrating the flared gap. At the same time that the cuff plate grew smaller, changes to the areas covering the fingers and wrists turned the tradition from a one piece design into a multiple plate construction that facilitated greater wrist and finger motion
During the 14th century advances in the blacksmith trade resulted in the construction of plate metal armor with increased artistry and articulation. The ability to craft articulated plate defenses, fitted to individual fingers maximized a knight’s defensive and aggressive capacities by liberating the fingers and wrists to move more naturally.
Historian Michael P Smith said common features of the late medieval design included spiked knuckle plates and protrusions off the third knuckle on the metacarpal plate known as gadlings. “Another very important feature on most, if not all, gauntlets of this style, is the so-called “knuckle-rider” plate. This is a plate between the metacarpal plate and the fingerplates. It is articulated with rivets to the metacarpal plate and is attached to the finger leathers… This allows the plate to cover the gap between metacarpal plate and the fingerplates, while allowing the fingers to be fully extended.”
The last half of the 15th century saw armor reach its apex in both form and function. The craft of the late medieval design employed elegant mechanics that further freed both the wrist and fingers to move with even greater independence. So by the 16th century when someone threw down the gauntlet there was no denying the significance of the act; more than just a weapon, the gauntlet was literally regarded as the hand of war.